Canada’s federal Parliament is located in the country’s capital city, Ottawa, Ontario. Located in the huge Parliament Building on Parliament Hill, the Parliament of Canada is the center of power and government in the country.
Parliament itself consists of three separate levels of government, each one independent of each other but all of them housed in the Parliament Building. These three branches of government are as follows:
The Royal Monarch, currently Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, makes up one of these levels of government. Because she resides in England, her powers are invested in a representative to the Canadian Parliament, known as a Governor-General.
The Governor-General is appointed to the post by the Queen, but only on the recomendation of the Prime-Minister of Canada. Thus, since the early 20th Century, the Governor General has been a Canadian. The role of the GG is to give Royal Assent to any legislation passed by the rest of Parliament, but never to get involved in the legislative process themselves. The GG is also responsible for ensuring that Parliament operates according to its own laws and regulations, and that all Parliamentary formalities are followed. In extreme cases where Parliament isn’t behaving or the political process appears to be falling apart, the Governor General can prorogue Parliament, which basically means shut it down. The GG also has the power to end a government and call a new national election, although this power is usually only carried out at the request of the Prime-Minister.
The House of Commons
The House of Commons is the chamber of Parliament most people think of when they hear the word “Parliament”. This house consists of Members of Parliament (MPs) directly elected by voters, with each MP representing an electoral district (also known as a riding). The winner of each riding election is given one seat in the House of Commons, and the party that has the most seats is declared the Government by the Governor General, with the leader of the party made Prime-Minister. A party can only be government when it enjoys the confidence of Parliament. If the other parties band together and vote down a government bill, it is assumed they have lost the confidence of Parliament and the Governor General can call a new election.
There are currently 308 seats in the House of Commons, with that number set to rise to 314 by 2015. The House of Commons is traditionally called the Lower House of Parliament, although since Prime-Ministers began to amass amazing amounts of power into their hands since the mid-twentieth Century, the Commons has become the dominant chamber of Parliament on the Hill. The Governor General rubber stamps every law Parliament passes and only acts under advisory from the Prime-Minister, while the role of the Senate has been reduced to reviewing and making small legal adjustments to Acts that come down from the Commons.
With so much power in the hands of 308 elected politicians, it is no wonder that the House of Commons is the focal point of politics in Canada.
The House of Commons can and does devolve into bitter arguments, name-calling and general chaos, so the proceedings are governed by the Speaker of the House. The Speaker has no legislative authority; instead, he or she is invested with the power to manage the proceedings of the House, to count votes, ensure regulations are followed and kick trouble-makers out of the Commons if need be.
One of the finer traditions in Canada’s Parliament is the process of the daily Question Period. At the start of each day in the House of Commons, opposition MPs are given the chance to ask any questions to government MPs. Because every word uttered in Parliament is recorded by Hansard and published to the public, as well as every proceeding being televised, the role of Question Period was originally to ensure complete transparency of government going-ons to the electorate. What Question Period has devolved into, however, is a lot of partisanship, hooliganism and posturing by all sides, with questions rarely being answered and the questioners rarely asking anything intelligent. Tuning into CPAC, the free Canadian Parliament Access Channel, on a Monday morning can be quite entertaining!
The Senate of Canada is currently one of the more contentious issues in Canada’s political system. Originally modelled after the British House of Lords, the Senate was supposed to be a chamber of sober second thought, away from the shenanigans and heated tempers of partisan politics in the House of Commons.
Instead, the Senate has today become a retirement home for Canada’s rich and well-connected. Senators are appointed by the Prime-Minister (technically by the Governor-General, but only on the Prime-Minister’s recommendation), and are not elected.They are appointed to serve for life and, because the Prime-Minister chooses his/her senators, they usually consist of rich people who gave the most financial contributions to any particular political party.
There are currently 105 Senate seats, and every time a Senator dies, the current serving Prime-Minister has the opportunity to add a loyal Senator in the Upper House. As a result, the Senate currently consists of mostly Liberal Party backers, as the Liberal Party governed Canada for most of the past 100 years. The current Conservative Party has managed to add several key Senate positions, and there are even some Senators from the now non-existent Progressive Conservative Party!
The role of the Senate is to take any Acts sent up from the House of Commons following their first reading, pick it apart, review each section to ensure it complies with constitutional law and to ensure that it’s nothing that will mess up society (too badly), call in panels of experts and hold lengthy hearings into each piece of the potential legislation, and then vote on it and, if it passes the Senate vote, return it to the House of Commons for a third and final reading and vote.
The Peace Tower
The Peace Tower is one of the iconic structures of Parliament Hill. In 1916, at the height of the First World War, the original Parliament buildings burned down. When they were reconstructed by the end of 1917, the Peace Tower was added as a symbol of Canada’s love of peace and rejection of war following the terrible loss of life in the trenches of France.
The Peace Tower is 180 feet tall (55 meters) and is capped with a large clock, four gargoyles and an intricate bell system that rings out every hour during the day. An elevator takes tourists to an observation deck at the top of the tower, giving people a great view of Ottawa and the Gatineau Hills.
The main building of Parliament is called the Center Block. This cavernous sandstone building houses the Commons, Senate, Library, Peace Tower and Prime-Minister’s offices, as well as various functional administrative offices. The Center Block is massive, and was built to impress.
The Library of Parliament
Built in 1876, the Library of Parliament is the only part of the Center Block that didn’t burn down in the great fire of 1916. The Library is the repository of every Parliamentary law, Act, regulation, procedure and every word that has been uttered in the House of Commons or the Senate. Tour groups are allowed guided access to the library, but otherwise access to the thousands of volumes of Canadian law that are housed here is with special permission only.
The Eternal Flame
On the great lawns of Parliament Hill, at the front gates and open to the public, sits the Eternal Flame of Canada. This flame represents Confederation and the joining of all the Provinces into one united nation. The idea behind the flame is that, so long as it is alight, Canada will remain a united country.
The Cat Man
One of the most unique aspects of Parliament Hill is the Cat Man! The day-to-day managers of Parliament Hill chose, in 1973, to fund a small cat sanctuary on the south-east side of the Hill for the small colony of cats that lived in the Parliament buildings. The cats had originally been brought in as mousers in 1880, but by 1970 the colony was too big to have cats running around the halls of Parliament. The Parliament Cat Sanctuary was born, and Rene Chartrand, today a minor celebrity known as the Cat Man, took on the job of caring for them.
The Parliament Cats today include strays from across the city, although the core group are descendants of the original cats tasked with keeping rodents off the Hill. The Cat Man is a popular tourist spot for people on their route around Parliament Hill!